ECH Scouting Spotlight: Week 11

Welcome to week 11 of our Scouting Spotlight series!

This week, we’ll be looking at Columbus Blue Jackets center Kevin Stenlund. Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella has made some unusual lineup decisions in the last month and thanks to some recent lineup shenanigans on his part, Stenlund (like some other usual Columbus regulars) has been a healthy scratch recently. As a result, we’ve had to wait a bit longer than we would’ve liked for him to be back in the lineup to get some recent game footage. While we think he’ll stay in the lineup for the games in our schedule preview, you never know with Torts, so keep that in mind if you tune in and can’t spot #11 in blue.

Kevin Stenlund was a second round pick by the Blue Jackets in 2015 and spent his early post-draft years in Europe. He played in Jonkoping, Sweden for three years before coming to North America joining the Blue Jackets’ system. Now in his third NHL season, Stenlund has finally locked down a full time roster spot. He has 10 points in 29 games this season which is impressive given that Stenlund averages only 12:23 of ice time, which ranks 11th among Blue Jackets’ forwards. Stenlund has played all over the lineup this season, playing as high as 2nd line center and as low as 4th line center. He’s also on the Blue Jackets’ 2nd powerplay unit and has been positioned on both the left wall and right wall over the last two seasons.

When looking for a comparable player, one can’t help but draw parallels between Stenlund and the player the Blue Jackets lost in the last expansion draft in 2017: William Karlsson. Like Stenlund, Karlsson was a 24-year-old 2nd round pick Swedish center who had played in Jonkoping after being drafted and had solid but not great point totals in the NHL. And, come on, just look at the hair:

Knowing the impact player that Karlsson has become, this comparison might seem like a reach. But the raw numbers would seem to suggest it’s not as crazy as it might seem. In fact, Karlsson had 45 points in 162 games (0.28 per game) in his final two seasons with the Blue Jackets. Stenlund has 20 points in 61 games (0.33 per game) through his last two seasons.

So am I saying that Stenlund will make the improbable jump to point-per-game center that Karlsson did? Not exactly. Karlsson’s progression was unlike anything the NHL had seen in a long time and when watching both players, there are some big differences in both play style and skill level. But like Karlsson, I do think that Stenlund could benefit from a change of scenery and more opportunity- and the results might surprise some people.

On paper, Stenlund has all the tools to be a 2nd line center. He has a rare mix of size and skating ability with flashes of puck skills to match. Emerald City Hockey’s Dylan Travers, a former junior hockey scout, gives this assessment of Stenlund’s game:

“He has good size and he knows how to use it, has an insane motor. He’s always moving and always ends up in the play, though that does sometimes mean he’s pulled way out of position. He’s an above average skater, especially for his size.

The biggest question when evaluating Stenlund is whether he ultimately projects as a bottom-6 center or a top-6 center. While it’s hard to tell given how little he’s playing right now, there are some encouraging signs that the answer could be the latter. The first is his powerful shot and quick release. Here he beats Jonathan Quick clean form the top of the faceoff circles:

The Blue Jackets have also utilized Stenlund’s shot on the powerplay. Here are two examples of what he’s been able to do working from the right side wall.

An underrated part of Stenlund’s game that I noticed when scouting him is his tendency to circle back in his own zone and support his defensemen. When one of his defenseman has the puck, Stenlund always has his head turned toward the d-man and his stick made available for a breakout pass.

Follow Stenlund (#11 white) in this clip from yesterday’s game against the Florida Panthers. Notice how Stenlund has his head turned back looking right at his defenseman and his stick on the ice giving his teammate a clear target for a breakout pass. As his defenseman turns back into the zone again, Stenlund actively curls back with him and gives him an easy breakout pass option. Head up, eyes focused on teammate with the puck, stick on the ice, every time.

From later in the game, Stenlund follows his defenseman (#15) closely into the corner to give him a quick pass option. When the puck is rimmed around the boards instead, Stenlund immediately goes to support his other defenseman, allowing him to make a clean breakout pass as Stenlund can transition from defense to offense with speed. Stenlund then enters the zone, draws two defenders to himself, and creates space for his teammate (#26). I like that Stenlund isn’t afraid to drop below his own goal line to support his defensemen when necessary.

When seeing how many clean defensive zone exits Stenlund was able to create, it made sense why his possession numbers have been so good this season. He’s 4th on the Blue Jackets in Corsi For% and Fenwick For%. When Columbus has the puck in their own end, Stenlund does all he can to ensure they don’t stay there for long.

Where would Stenlund fit in on the Kraken? We currently have him centering the second line in our Projected Seattle Kraken Lineup. While that placement may be a bit optimistic, it’s not unreasonable to think that Stenlund could grow into that role if given the opportunity. Wherever he would slot in, Stenlund’s potential means he would certainly be worth selecting in the expansion draft if he was available.

Schedule Preview: Tues. 4/20 @ FLA 4:00PM PT – Thurs. 4/22 @ TB 4:00PM – Sun. 4/25 @ TB 4:00PM PT

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The Blue Jackets start the week with the second of back-to-back games against the Florida Panthers, an opponent that has seemed to have their number recently. Columbus has lost each of their last five games against the Panthers and have a record of 1-5-1 in their season series with Florida. The Jackets then play a two game series with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Stenlund just played his first game in a week yesterday after being a healthy scratch for much of April. The Blue Jackets are a miserable 1-8-1 in their last 10 games and could use a spark from anyone at this point. You’d have to think ice time in Columbus is up for grabs right now. Look for Stenlund to try to make an impact on the scoresheet and force Tortorella to move him back up the lineup.

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